‘Everything was gone’: Musicians reflect on the impact of Covid-19

As many sectors reopen and return to some sense of normality, uncertainty remains for performing artists
‘Everything was gone’: Musicians reflect on the impact of Covid-19

Cork singer-songwriter John Blek did up to 100 shows across Europe in the year prior to Covid

Cork singer-songwriter John Blek has been on the live music circuit since he was “old enough to be allowed into pubs”. 

At 34, it’s been 16 years of gigging, first as a cover musician, then as a band member, and now as a solo artist.

“Touring for me is something that I absolutely adore and it's something I do a lot of,” Mr Blek said.

“I tour fairly extensively in Germany, Belgium, Holland, the UK, and Ireland, and in the year prior to Covid, I would have done just over 100 shows, about 25 of them in Ireland.” 

But all that changed in March of last year.

“I was supposed to be playing a gig up in Belfast on Friday the thirteenth of March." 

I got the call from the promoter to call it off and that was the start of it.

The plight of those in the live performance industry has been highlighted by a number of advocacy groups such as MEAI (Music & Entertainment Association of Ireland) and EPIC (Event Production Industry Covid-19 Working Group), but their voices have never reached the levels of that of the hospitality and publicans lobby groups.

With both of those sectors now back at work, albeit with strict restrictions and guidelines to be adhered to, the music and live performance sector are crying out for a buoy. And if it doesn’t land soon, there are fears the industry could go under.

New research from the Arts Council reveals almost half of professional artists have considered abandoning their career over the past year, with the vast majority (70%) saying this was due to a lack of income and/or financial pressure.

A lack of work opportunities, lack of access, engagement or connection to audiences or participants, and being unable to properly engage with collaborators and other artists were also frequently cited as challenges to maintaining a career in the industry.

Everything was gone 

For Limerick musician Marty Ryan, it was fuel for self-doubt.

"I left a very good, secure job in 2018 to pursue music full-time, and I've been doing a mixture of teaching music and touring since.

“Both the teaching and the touring dried up. It was a very scary thing. I had a period of unbelievable self-doubt where I just couldn't believe I left [the job] behind,” Mr Ryan said.

“Everything — my income, what I enjoy doing, my social life — is all tied up around music. That was all gone.” 

Limerick musician Marty Ryan, who left a secure job in 2018 to pursue music full-time, had to re-evaluate how he could survive in the industry. Picture: Shane J Horan
Limerick musician Marty Ryan, who left a secure job in 2018 to pursue music full-time, had to re-evaluate how he could survive in the industry. Picture: Shane J Horan

Almost half (48%) of artists surveyed by the Arts Council described the financial impact of the pandemic on their income as "severe" with those working in the music industry saying the situation was worse this year than in 2020.

“It was the first time in my life where I experienced that level of financial worry and instability,” Ryan said.

To survive, he took on some work outside the industry: “Types of work that I'd never done before, purely to just make ends meet.

“I was lucky that I had a skill set to do it and had friends that were looking out for me to help me out,” he said.

But it was a scary time and made the Limerick native re-evaluate how he could survive in the industry.

I applied for a few different things and one of the opportunities that came about was a scholarship to do a PhD in music education in America.

To the disappointment of Anna’s Anchor fans, Ryan’s musical moniker, he announced his intention to take a step back from the project earlier this month in order to pursue his PhD.

"How difficult things were with the pandemic, especially at the start, in terms of losing so much work and so much income, it did make me look at other options and what I can do to try and make my future a little bit more secure,” he admitted.

"[Pre-Covid] I relied on live events too much. There's so much more to music. 

"Playing live is fantastic — I love it — but the whole industry revolves around playing live, whether it's to make an income as a musician, or to sell physical copies of an album from a label's perspective, or to sell merch, it all revolves around gigs.

“The thing you learn in any business degree is to diversify.

“As soon as live music was pulled away, it was a disaster.” 

A sense of resignation 

As streaming becomes the dominant form of music consumption, physical album and single sales have evaporated. 

Major streaming services, such as Spotify, Apple and others, have faced regular criticism in recent years for the tiny amounts paid per stream, with the average payout from Spotify reported to be between $0.003 and $0.0084 per stream, with more successful artists earning more per play.

As such, for smaller artists in particular, performing live is the primary source of income.

“My three streams of revenue are live performance, album, and merchandise sales, and royalties, and they're in and around that order in the amount that they bring in,” Blek said.

John Blek performing at the opening night of the Cork Folk Festival at St. Luke's in 2017
John Blek performing at the opening night of the Cork Folk Festival at St. Luke's in 2017

Now, he feels “stuck in a kind of purgatory” with no certainty as to when his main source of income will return.

This summer, I was supposed to be in Germany for six festival shows, and they were all pulled, one by one. 

"It is a nightmare scenario. At this point there is a sense of resignation," Blek said.

For Cork singer-songwriter Sarah-Beth O’Mullane, who also fronts alt-pop band Luunah, she hasn’t yet come to a place where she feels confident booking gigs.

"I keep seeing people's gigs get canceled and postponed; I don't want to go through the heartbreak,” Ms O'Mullane said. 

Government support 

O’Mullane, who is undertaking a master’s degree at Cork School of Music, thinks the best hope they have of getting back to some semblance of normality in the coming months is through government funding — and clearly, there is a demand.

The Arts Council approved funding for 129% more applicants in 2020 when compared to the previous year. It also experienced a near doubling in the number of funding applications submitted in that period.

Overall, the government-funded body paid out just 47% of the total amount requested.

Sarah-Beth O'Mullane (centre) thinks a basic income support for artists would be “fantastic." Picture: Miki Barlok
Sarah-Beth O'Mullane (centre) thinks a basic income support for artists would be “fantastic." Picture: Miki Barlok

[url=

https://www.irishexaminer.com/news/arid-40084106.html]A basic income scheme for artists [/url]is also set to be piloted by the government next January, in what may be of the most utopian-like ideas to come out of the pandemic.

O’Mullane thinks a basic income support for artists would be “fantastic”. It would enrich society and the nation if we were to “nourish” our artists and encourage them to pursue that which they are passionate about, in spite of economic challenges.

“A lot of people I went to college with, they aren’t in music anymore,” Ms O'Mullane said. 

People are leaving [the industry] that could be the next person to write the song of a generation.

But despite the uncertainty, turmoil, and financial burdens of this year, when asked whether the past year and a half has made them reconsider their career path, all three musicians are clear.

“I would never stop doing it. I do it every day … it’s something I can’t help but do,” O’Mullane said.

“I haven’t ever considered doing anything else,” Blek concurred.

“My life is built around the art that I create, the job that I do, it’s indelibly ingrained.” 

For Ryan too, even as he step backs from performing for a while, he says he doesn’t feel he’s leaving the industry, in fact, he is “fighting harder to try and stay within it.” 

“If I do ever have to leave it, I'll never stop being a musician. I'll never stop making music.” 

  • John Blek’s Cork gig at Triskel Christchurch on October 16 is sold out, but there are a few remaining tickets for his gig at The Workman’s Club in Dublin on October 17.
  • Anna’s Anchor final gig (for now) will take place at The Milk Market on August 13 (sold out).
  • Sarah-Beth O'Mullane and Luunah have no upcoming gigs.

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